Pope Francis warm welcomed by the people of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq, during his visit in Erbil on March 7, 2021.

The Pastoral Populism of Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani

The pastoral populism of Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani focuses on the long game. It is a political and religious outlook that pushes the state to have a moral relationship with the masses- to address their needs through state social welfare, competent governance, instead of focusing on the interests of the powerful, to heal our ailing, unequal world. It is a populism, buttressed by deep theological traditions. As bishops do, Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani were able to cut across the board, making strong diagonal trajectories from the West and East, to advocate for a coordinated role between religion and politics to protect both pawns and kings. 

By Lydia Khalil*

In 2015, Pope Francis delivered his Easter message in the midst of the global effort to reclaim territory from the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, a proxy war in the region and the height of the refugee crisis. In his address in St Peters Square, he prayed for “all those who suffer injustice as a result of ongoing conflicts and violence” and that the “international community not stand by before the immense humanitarian tragedy unfolding.” His prayers were not answered in 2015 as the international community did turn away from the suffering in Syria. Yet, his commitment to the region did not wane; he made multiple pastoral visits to the Middle East since and a pastoral visit to Iraq, becoming the first pope to do so. The papal visit to Iraq in the midst of pandemic and ongoing instability was done at great risk but it was heralded as a successful and significant emissarial mission to bear witness to the suffering and advocate for the rights and safety of Iraq’s beleaguered Christian minority and advance interreligious cooperation. 

 

Amid the footage of joyful celebration welcoming Pope Francis to Iraq, emerged a playful Twitter post by historian Vefa Erginbas. He posted a picture of the Pontiff’s meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Sistani showing the two leaders dressed in respective black and white robes sitting opposite each other in Sistani’s sparse home and posed the question – “What are they talking about? Wrong answers only…” Among the many quips was one that stood out  –“How are neither of us chess pieces?” If global politics is, like its often described, a chess game, then the playful remark on their contrasting robes, was an appropriate metaphor for the role that Pope Francis and Ayatollah Sistani – the black and white bishops – have played in reorienting politics to address the needs of masses and promote a new kind of populism – a pastoral populism.  

The meeting between Ayatollah Sistani and Pope Francis is likely to be the only direct encounter between the two. Sayed Sistani is 90 years old and does not leave his home. The Pope is in his 80s and unlikely to return to Iraq. But even this one meeting was a consequential move, in that it revealed that they are working concurrently to promote a version of populism rooted in the morality of their respective faith traditions that focuses on the needs of the masses. There are 1.2 billion Catholics and Shia make up almost 200 million of the Muslim faithful. Through their moral and spiritual leadership, they have signalled to their followers and exhorted politicians in government, not only to lead, but to care and administer. As the statement issued by Sistani’s office on the meeting signalled, the encounter between Ayatollah Sistani and Pope Francis was to “urge the concerned parties – especially those with great powers – to prioritize reason and wisdom and not to promote their self-interest over the rights of the people to live in freedom and dignity.”   

Pope Francis’ Relationship to Populism

To fully appreciate the significance of their meeting and their complimentary notions of pastoral populism, it helps to understand the background that each of them brought to the board. When the Jesuit Pope took the name Francis, he went in a conspicuously different direction than his predecessor. He aligned himself with the legacy of St Francis of Assisi, which emphasises mercy for the sinner, administering to the poor, protection of nature and eschewing power and political status. Vatican commentator and author, John L Allen, observed that in taking his name, the Pope wedded the institutional church with the charismatic, populist tradition of St Francis of Assisi whereas previously they had been distinct spheres of the Catholic tradition. Like his namesake, Pope Francis has repeatedly called on the world to ‘hear the cry of the poor’ and the suffering; to put the common good and human dignity before disposable consumerist and utilitarian tendencies that dominate our post-capitalist systems. He has placed pastoral care above theological professionalism and has stood down criticism for doing so from the conservative, right flank of the Catholic church while rebuilding the Catholic church in his image.  

In harkening St Francis and through his latest encyclical – Fratelli Tutti – which he completed a few months before his Iraq sojourn and published on the saint’s feast day – Pope Francis uses that opportunity to outline an alternative pastoral populism which focuses on fraternity and pastoral style of leadership. Dr. Anna Rowlands, a professor of religion at Durham University, and one of the panellists who presented the Fratelli Tutti encyclical, makes a compelling point about the Pope’s relationship to populism and how he provides a convincing rebuttal to the forces of violent nationalism and xenophobia that often accompanies it. “He gets populism. He gets what is the drive toward it and he rescues the notion of what it means to be ‘a people’ from the hands of the [far right] populists…” The Pope has done this by identifying the insecurity and fear that drives support for far-right populists while offering an alternative framework with which to address that insecurity and fear.

Sayed Sistani’s Expansive and Pastoral Type of Populism

Sayed Sistani has symbolised and advanced a similarly expansive and pastoral type of populism within Shiism and within Middle East. The cleric, who has rented the same, sparse home in old Najaf, has also voiced the needs of the poor and marginalised and has consistently provided a counter narrative to sectarianism by encouraging temperance and unity amid Iraq’s ongoing tumultuous political transition. 

In his analysis of Sistani’s role in Iraq’s early transition to democracy, Babak Rahimi, a specialist in medieval and modern Islamic history, writes that within his Shiite Quietist tradition, Sistani could have remained completely aloof from politics while still retaining his credibility and authority. Instead, as Rahimi argues, during a time of “perceived moral decadence, political corruption, great injustice, or foreign occupation, he can become more active in political affairs by engaging in activities such as consultation, guidance, and even the promotion of sacred norms in public life.” Sistani did this time and again over the past two decades. He insisted that Iraq’s post Baathist constitution be ratified by popular vote. He urged Iraqis to vote in elections despite a deep disenchantment with the political class. He called on Iraqis to combat the Islamic State through popular militias when the state security forces fell apart in the face of the onslaught. And he rebuked many of those forces when they became Iranian proxies and perpetrated sectarian violence. 

Though Sistani’s profile in the Western world has increased after the US invasion of Iraq, the lay person could be forgiven for not knowing the true extent of his religious standing and influence. Because the fraught history and ongoing political tensions between the United States and Iran, Shi’ism in the Western imagination is most associated with the Iranian theocracy and their militant enforcers the IRGC and other Iranian backed militias throughout the Middle East, especially in Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan and indeed Iraq. 

Yet Ayatollah Sistani is one of the most revered and influential leaders in the Muslim world and he and his allies have a theological position on the role of religion in government that  stands in contrast to the Iranian ayatollahs who established velayet-e faqih – rule by Islamic jurists – after the fall of the Shah of Iran. Sistani, who claims lineage from Prophet Muhammad and is a link in a long chain of clerics dating back to the Safavid dynasty, has arguably more religious credentials and moral authority than Iran’s Ali Khamenei. Even though we hear more about Iranian regional manoeuvres and their influence over the Shia Crescent, Sistani’s followers are by no means limited to Iraq. They span millions over the Shia world as his foundation sponsors seminaries and social programs in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. As important as he is to Iraq, his influence expands much wider; millions of Shia Muslims around the world turn to Sistani for daily guidance on how to live their lives.  

Sistani Offers an Alternative Vision of the Role of Religion

The 2003 Iraq war and its aftermath may have eliminated a geostrategic counterweight to Iran through the removal of Saddam Hussein and provided the opportunity for Iranian influence in Iraq. However, it had the opposite effect when it came to religious influence within Shia Islam between Qom and Najaf. Under Saddam’s rule, Sistani remained under house arrest and his influence stifled. The removal of Saddam Hussein meant that the Najafi cleric had more space to promote his own interpretation of the role of religion in governance counter to the Iran’s vision that both religious and political authority be enacted in the same body. Sistani offers a viable alternative vision of the role of religion to governance among the Shia faithful.  

In contrast to the Iranian clerics, Sistani’s authority does not come from his position as an authoritarian jurist. Rather, as leader of the Hawza in Najaf, Sistani represents the ‘quietest’ school of Shia politics and acts instead as a moral authority that does not necessarily seek to endow himself with political power. Even though Sistani and the Hawza rejects the Iranian model of velayet-e faqih and eschews a role in politics, has had to, reluctantly perhaps, fashion some role for himself during Iraq’s tumultuous political transition. Iraqi authorities remain beholden to him and his influence and he has used this influence to robustly defend the interests of the Shia Muslim community by holding political authorities to account and has done so in contrast to Iranian-backed Iraqi parties by pushing back against, instead of inflaming, sectarian tendencies.   

Like Pope Francis’ unanswered prayers for international intervention to stem the human suffering in Syria, on sectarianism, Sistani has not been entirely successful. Despite his calls for unity after the 2006 al-Askari Shrine bombing, his exhortation could not contain the civil war that followed. However, he remains a powerful and decisive force in Iraq’s political transition and healing from civil war. Sayed Sistani has, repeatedly, served as the last bulwark, in Iraq’s descent into sectarianism and civil conflict. As Iraq has lurched from crisis to crisis, and corrupt government to inept government, Sistani has played an important and unifying role. And he has done so with an eye of protecting the interests of the masses – particularly his Shia faithful – but while also linking the Shia struggle with a comprehensive vision for human dignity and solidarity across sects. This is not only the result of Sistani as an individual religious leader. It is also the result of the longstanding stance of the Hawza institutionally.

In 2019, Iraq, like other countries in the region, was engulfed in a second wave of popular protests that were met with the predictable government crackdowns. Sistani came down on the side of the popular protesters which ultimately led to the Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi’s resignation. He rebuked, once again, the political class that has maintained its power and privilege through corruption and their exploitation of the informal sectarian based quota system and their ties to Iran. Sistani’s removed intervention via his Friday sermon siding with the popular protests for dignity and economic opportunity signalled a similar approach to Pope Francis’ populism one that, as he said, “does not give an unfair advantage to current political parties, but gives a real opportunity to change the forces that have ruled the country.”

Their Pastoral Populism Focuses on the Long Game

In their separate yet similar ways, Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani have articulated a pastoral populism grounded in their respective religious traditions. Their coming together is all the more consequential because both faith leaders provide models for how religion can be a force in politics and do so in contrast to, not only far right politicians in the West and corrupt authoritarian political elites in the Middle East, but the more reactionary strains within their own religious communities that have traditionally served the powerful. They have offered alternative visions to, respectively, the Catholic Right aligned with conservative far-right politics and Iranian political theocracy based on velayat-e faqih or government via Islamic jurists, both of which are more concerned with politicising and policing social norms or wielding political influence to advance their narrow interests. Their version of populism serves as a rebuttal to the recent variety of far-right populism founded on xenophobia, anti-elitism, crisis thinking and ‘bad manners’  that bombarded us from the likes of populist leaders Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban and Duterte. They are not merely ‘moderate’ leaders that preach temperance and tolerance but rather a different, more substantial vision.  

Crucially, they do not seek for religion to supplant politics, but rather insist on holding governments to account in pursuit of the common good – a different approach to other modern religious leaders who either attempt to displace the state or co-opt it in service of the religious hierarchies’ narrow interests. Sayed Sistani and Pope Francis both have an intuitive understanding that engaging with politics but not holding political power is the key to their effective advocacy for the masses. Pope Francis, in his second encyclical Laudito Si, subtitled ‘the care for the common good,’ clearly stated that “the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.”

Similarly – Sistani views himself as a guide only. His insistence to be remove from the state is all the more significant given the power vacuum that arose after the deposition of Saddam Hussein which Sistani could been filled or becoming an overbearing influence who only advances Shia interests. Instead, Sistani continually insisted that Iraq’s momentous issues be worked through the transitional and political process and pleaded the case for the rule of law, anti-sectarianism and broader Iraqi national identity.  

Through their lived history, their similar view of the role religion should play in politics and their complementary vision of pastoral populism, they have played a role true to their metaphorical chess piece – the bishop. A ‘good bishop’ in chess – is one who has freedom of movement and is thus better able to protect its pawns and can often help win the game. The bishop is also used most effectively in conjunction with other pieces when playing the long game. Their pastoral populism focuses on the long game. It is a political and religious outlook that pushes the state to have a moral relationship with the masses- to address their needs through state social welfare, competent governance, instead of focusing on the interests of the powerful, to heal our ailing, unequal world. It is a populism, buttressed by deep theological traditions. As bishops do, Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani were able to cut across the board, making strong diagonal trajectories from the West and East, to advocate for a coordinated role between religion and politics to protect both pawns and kings. 


(*) LYDIA KHALIL is a Research Fellow in the West Asia Program at the Lowy Institute and manages the Lowy Institute’s core partnership with the Global Network on Extremism & Technology. She is also currently a research associate at Deakin University’s Alfred Deakin Institute and a fellow with the Centre for Resilient & Inclusive Societies. She has professional background in politics, international relations and security has focused on US national security policy, Middle East politics, counterterrorism and intelligence. She was international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York where she analysed political and security trends in the Middle East. She also served as a political advisor for the US Department of Defence in Iraq. In Australia, Lydia held fellowships with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Macquarie University, specialising in intelligence, national security and cyber security.

Marine and Jean-Marie Le Pen rallied during the meeting for the celebration of May 1, 2011 in Paris, France. Photo: Frederic Legrand

Right-wing Populism in the Swedish, Greek, and French News Media

At a virtual meeting of the ECPS on March 16, 2021, the scholars Marianna Patrona and Joanna Thornborrow presented findings from an international research project. Their findings warn  journalists that neutrality is not always an effective measure of good reporting. In the fight against racism, xenophobia, and homophobia, the mainstream press should proactively promote the content of democratic values.

By Gabriela de Oliveira Carneiro 

At a virtual meeting of the European Centre for Populism Studies (ECPS) on March 16, 2021, the scholars Marianna Patrona and Joanna Thornborrow presented data and findings from the international research project entitled Right-wing Populism in the News Media: A Cross-Cultural Study of Journalist Practices and News Discourse funded by the Swedish Research Council. 

The main research question centred on the challenge facing journalists as they try to balance disparate concerns while reporting on scandalous speech by right-wing populists (RWP). Based on a qualitative discourse-analytic approach, Ekström, Patrona, and Thornborrow examined key aspects of the discursive framing of undemocratic, racist, homophobic and otherwise scandalous speech by right-wing populists in European news reports, collected between 2014 and 2018. The issue is how these frameworks can contribute to the processes of normalizing populist discourse and agendas.

The authors presented case studies from current, ethically problematic speeches by radical right-wing politicians and their mediated representations in print, online, and broadcast news media from Sweden, Greece, and France. The main analytical aspects in the news were: blaming the actors and/or political parties responsible for the scandals; journalistic evaluation through the language constructed in the news (explicit/implicit); and aspects of the foregrounding and backgrounding—that is, was more emphasis placed on the conflict itself or on its moral content.

The Swedish case, presented by Marianna Patrona, shows the press reaction to a November 26, 2017 speech by local politician Martim Strid (of the Sweden Democrats – SD), in which Strid railed against Muslims. According to Patrona, the Akktuelt News Group reported the controversial statement and journalistic commentary that framed the event as a clear moral transgression, comparing the content of Strid’s statement to the Nazis. Moreover, the selection of quotes condemning relevant political actors in headlines, news articles, reports and political commentaries reflects the important work of journalistic evaluation. For Patrona, media coverage helped to highlight the unequivocal culpability of a politician, while highlighting the broader values of the SD. This served as an opportunity for the SD to demonstrate a zero-tolerance policy toward anti-democratic views and the discursive inclusion of the party in a political culture of democratic and legitimate debate.

Patrona also analysed an incident from Greece: reporting on a homophobic speech made by Konstantinos Katisics, MP of ANEL and member of SYRYZA-ANEL in 2018. During a parliamentary debate over a bill that would allow same-sex couples to become foster parents, Katisics equated homosexuality with pedophilia: “Love of pedophilia is a crime, why should homosexuality be any different?” The MP’s declaration provoked widespread public outcry. He was called to account on radio and television. On the “Good Morning Greece” (ATN1 channel) program, the MP was called to explain himself; from the beginning, the hosts framed the interview controversy of legitimacy: “We have many phone calls that agree and many phone calls that disagree.” Throughout the interview, Patrona’s analysis shows that the focus was on the conflicting styles between Katisics and his peers—and not on the homophobic content. The politician was given many opportunities on several occasions to reinterpret his homophobic statement and thus dismissing all charges.

Joanna Thornborrow presented about a scandalous comment overheard by a journalist in France. During a pre-campaign cocktail hour in Marseille, ahead of parliamentary elections in May 2014, the former leader of the National Front, Jean Marie Le Pen was overheard talking with other party members about the population explosion in Africa. At the time, he said that France was “submerged” by immigration and that “Monsignor Ebola can sort that out in three months.” According to Thornborrow, the racist and anti-democratic statement was presented in a neutral manner by journalists in most of the subsequent stories, including two major national daily headlines which ran it as breaking news. It was reproduced in direct quotes or speech attributed to the politician, with no journalistic evaluation of the content. Like Katisics’s case in Greece, when JM Le Pen’s daughter, Marine, was asked about the topic at Des Paroles et des Actes, interviewers allowed her to blame the press (…) “who have totally taken his words out of context …”

Following Thornborrow, neutral media positioning on JM Le Pen’s racist comment contributes to marginalize the FN; allows the party’s leadership, Marine Le Pen, to blame the media for being biased towards the party and against “the French people”; and enables the reinterpretation of racist discourse and its dissemination across digital media, rousing FN supporters.

Based on the evidence from the three case studies, the researchers concluded that there are three journalistic practices with regards to normalizing RWP speech: 1) neutral and non-evaluative reporting; 2) the media’s propensity to frame extremist discourse as a conflict narrative, without considering the ethical limits of racist and homophobic anti-democratic discourse; 3) the “scandalous” framing, giving free publicity to right-wing populist leaders without any ethical criticism of their undemocratic stances.

Ekström, Patrona, and Thornborrow’s findings warn academics and journalists that neutrality is not always an effective measure of good reporting. In the fight against racism, xenophobia, and homophobia, the mainstream press should proactively promote the content of democratic values.

Man buying The Guardian newspaper from press kiosk with Braking news from Theresa May British Prime Minister "Brexit delayed two years" in Paris on September 25, 2017.

The Populist Hype and “the Mainstreaming of the Far Right”

Katy Brown and Aurelien Mondon’s findings indicate that the populist hype has had three critical effects on the public discourse of populism: It obscures the media’s agenda-setting power and deflects the responsibility away from media, elites, and political actors; euphemizes the racist ideas and figures, muddies the meaning of populism; and gives disproportionate coverage to the far-right actors and amplifies their influence.

By Erdem Kaya

The scholars Katy Brown and Aurelien Mondon made a remarkable presentation on the unintended adverse effects of the overuse of the term “populism” in the media, academic publications, and policy speeches at a virtual meeting of the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) on March 6, 2021. Brown and Mondon presented their findings in their recently published article “Populism, the media, and the mainstreaming of the far right: The Guardian’s coverage of populism as a case study” calling for a “more critical and careful use” of populism both as a descriptive term and a social science concept. 

Brown and Mondon use a mixed-method discursive analysis based on both quantitative data and qualitative insights and take The Guardian’s investigative series on populism from November 20, 2018 to November 20, 2019 as the case study. The authors explore how populism has been hyped in elite discourse and illustrate how this constructed hype has informed the respective public discourse. Their findings indicate that the populist hype has had three critical effects on the public discourse of populism. It obscures the media’s agenda-setting power and deflects the responsibility away from media, elites, and political actors. It also euphemizes the racist ideas and figures, muddies the meaning of populism, and gives disproportionate coverage to the far-right actors and amplifies their influence. 

Katy Brown and Aurelien Mondon made a presentation on the adverse effects of the overuse of the term “populism” in the media, academic publications, and policy speeches at a virtual meeting of the ECPS on March 6, 2021.

Brown and Mondon’s study exposes how the centrist parties abuse the “populist” threat and how their targeting the “populist” actors further disguises the subtle racism and xenophobia in the status quo. The study shows how the indiscriminate use of the concept of populism serves the far right’s search for a destigmatized image as well as how the editorial mistakes in media enable the far-right politicians to platform their ideas. The authors highlight that the populist hype emanated from such pervasive and uncritical uses of the term facilitates the legitimization and mainstreaming of the far-right figures and ideas. They do not argue for “the complete withdrawal of the term” but, referring to Cas Mudde’s earlier warnings, suggest a more careful and critical use of it. 

Brown and Mondon’s study draws attention to the implications of the hype in using the populist epithet for the far right. The populist hype stands for an evident causal factor in their research. However, the way and the context in which they measure the implications of this hype over the legitimization and the mainstreaming of the far right require further attention. Considering the exponential growth of the usage of the term in the last half-century and the overall rightward shift in politics in the West during the last thirty years, and against the backdrop of the ramped-up tension between global capitalism and national politics in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, determining the causality may not be a straightforward task. 

As the authors put it, the lack of care in the pervasive usage of the term produces palatable depictions of racist ideas and turns populism into a weasel word. However, the increased frequency, the vagueness and the pervasiveness of the term are not necessarily tantamount to a legitimizing effect. Or, the fact that The Guardian’s investigative series do not represent an objective coverage of a political phenomenon and the argument that the series cannot be taken as independent of the power structures that influence the development of the public discourse on populism are not sufficient grounds to establish the causation for the legitimacy and mainstreaming of the far right.  

Likewise, although the association of populism with illiberalism deflects attention away from “populism” and implicit racism within the centrist political structures, it may not generate a legitimizing or mainstreaming effect. Depending on the context, associating populism with illiberalism or placing the populist actors as outside liberal democracy may strengthen the centre but can also raise the expected awareness. So, the unintended consequences of using the concept of populism may not entirely negate the intended consequences. For especially the cases in which the populist parties in power, speaking truth to power and naming the populist demagogue -without attributing harmlessness to the far-right ideas- are not worthless.  

As Brown and Mondon point out, the populist hype is not all about emitting “a positive or ambiguous light” on the concept of populism. They do not treat the full coverage of populism in The Guardian as problematic. They also do not deny that there is a “generally negative slant” in the overall usage of the term. So, whether the extensive use of the term populism or the lack of care in the use of the term facilitates the move rightwards in European politics and the mainstreaming of the far right is disputable. Populism, as a political style or a floating signifier, still has a negative connotation, while far-right political actors tend to stick with populist rhetoric to expand their voting base. But, even though the far-right groups receive undue coverage, the influence of the coverage of populism in totality might even be the other way around. 

Brown and Mondon’s study avoids selection bias to a large extent by adopting The Guardian—a left-liberal leaning newspaper—as its case study. However, further research is needed to establish a sound causal connection between the populist hype in elite discourse and the mainstreaming of the far right. Discourses do constitute social realities but theorizing the implications of the populist hype on the mainstreaming of the far right may require collecting longitudinal data over the course of different time frames as well as exploring cross-national variation.

Photo: Mustafa Kirazlı

Does Erdogan offer a populist blueprint for Modi and Netanyahu?

Right-wing populism beyond the West

This series profiles electorally successful right-wing populists outside the widely studied contexts of Europe and the Americas. We commence with empirical studies of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu. In a next step, we probe the commonalities and discontinuities of these three populist leaders and reflect on the global phenomenon of right-wing populism and its relationship with processes of democratisation and democratic backsliding. These op-eds are based on research published by the authors in Democratization, Volume 27, No. 8 (2020), available at https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2020.1795135

By Julius Maximilian Rogenhofer 

Taking the study of populism beyond the familiar geographies of Europe and the Americas, my series of commentaries for the ECPS explores how right-wing populism undermines fragile democracies, particularly in Turkey, India and Israel—countries that are all marked by deep social, ethnonational and religious divisions. This final commentary argues that, despite differences in size, history and institutional culture, all three democracies exhibit a remarkably consistent populist strategy. 

What distinguishes Turkey, India and Israel from polarised societies in the European Union and the Americas is each countries’ dangerous, conflict-ridden neighbourhood, which makes threats to the nation an ever-present reality. Fear of conflict nurtures the populist strategies employed by each country’s leader. Military interventions in neighbouring countries, such as Erdogan’s ongoing campaigns in Libya, Syria and Iraq, Modi’s strikes on Pakistan in 2019 and Israel’s confrontations with Palestinians in Gaza serve to rally nationalist sentiment in ways that make membership of- and exclusion from the “people” morally salient. All three countries deny the national aspirations of a substantial minority – the Kurds in Turkey, Kashmiris in India and Palestinians in Israel – and threatens to conflate rights-demanding minorities with terrorists. 

While the relationship between populism and democracy remains disputed[1], populism’s antidemocratic potential is notable across the countries examined in this series. In fact, the populist playbook employed by each leader is comparable, with Erdogan offering a broad blueprint for the measures employed by Modi and Netanyahu. 

The right-wing populist strategies used by Erdogan, Modi and Netanyahu have three pillars: First, their neoliberal economic policies break from early conceptualizations of populism as advocating economic equality. Second, their conflation of nationalism, patriotism and religion allows leaders to address issues of belonging within the national community and to sow divisions between “us” and “them.” Third, the undermining of independent news media has emboldened each leader’s attack on democratic institutions. 

This common populist playbook is neither statist nor unabashedly free market. Though each leader’s policies differ in the types of intervention each leader is willing to make in the national economy, each leader undermined state institutions, preferring to bolster growth through the private sector. All three replaced social and welfare services available to all citizens with benefits that specifically target the “people”, thus, undermining the liberal citizen-state relationship. Membership of an exclusively defined “people” becomes preconditions for access, thereby nurturing unmediated relationships between the leader and the “people” outside of formal state structures. The resulting relationships of dependency allow the populist leader to conflate the government with the state. 

Erdogan’s justification of his policies concerning an Islamic mandate, Modi’s embrace of Hindutva and Netanyahu’s emphasis on Israel’s Jewishness all point to a conflation of religion with the national vision.

Unlike former US President Trump and populists across Central and Eastern Europe, Erdogan, Modi, and Netanyahu are not primarily resisting social changs like those attributed to large-scale, irregular migration. Although refugees have recently become an important political issue in all three countries, the developments analysed in this series precede the emergence of irregular migration as in issue on the national stage and shape how this issue is perceived in each country—namely, in sectarian, ethnoreligious terms. 

Instead, each leader studied in this series attempts to homogenize an intrinsically heterogeneous society by mobilizing one authentic, ethno-religiously conceived “people.” By infusing definitions of “the people” with pre-existing sectarian conflicts Erdogan, Modi, and Netanyahu undercut minority rights and liberal democratic values. They also jeopardize relatively stable, if reluctant, compromises between the ethnic and religious groups in each state by seeking to exclude their political opponents from the national political community.

Each leader’s adversarial relationship with the fourth estate corresponds with wider trends in twentieth- and twenty-first-century populism, which span Donald Trump’s allegation of “fake news” and the Alternative for Germany’s invocation of the Lügenpresse (lying-news-media). The cultivation by Erdogan and Netanyahu of their own loyalist media and Modi and Netanyahu’s use of state resources to support their favourite news outlets suggest that populists in power are not opposed to institutions per se provided that the institutions in question are their own. 

The similarities between these three leaders have not escaped local critics: Netanyahu’s war on democratic institutions led his political opponents to warn of his “Erdoganisation” (Ahval, May 25, 2019), while the revocation of the special status of the region of Jammu and Kashmir, prompted commentators to decry the “Israelification” of India (Middle East Monitor, December 24, 2019). Our analysis supports such claims.

In short, this series argues that Turkey, India and Israel signify different stages on the slippery slope between fragile democracies and authoritarianism. Turkey appears furthest down this path of democratic decay. While Erdogan has gradually stripped Turkey of all meaningful democratic choice, democracy in India remains free- though not fair- despite the severe erosion of minority rights. In Israel, fiercely contested elections and Netanyahu’s struggles with the Supreme Court suggest that he has not yet monopolized Israeli democracy. Our concern for all three countries is not the descent to absolute dictatorship, but rather a rescission to formal democracy, where elections take place but clientelism, incitement against minorities and assaults on democratic institutions skew the political playing field so as to deprive voters of a say in national politics.


[1] Compare Abts, Koen, and Stefan Rummens. (2007). “Populism Versus Democracy.” Political Studies. 55, no. 2: 405–424. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9248.2007.00657.x. with Laclau, Ernesto. (2005). On Populist Reason. London: Verso.

Secretary of Northern League Matteo Salvini and PVV leader Geert Wilders, after the closing press conference of the first ENF Congress at the MiCo Center in Milano on January 29, 2016. Photo: Marco Aprile

Populist International (II) – Geert Wilders, an Agent of Anti-Islam Populist International Alliance

Geert Wilders’ populism is based on Islamophobia. His appeal is directly linked to the strong demand by Islamophobic groups for high-profile individuals who utilize populist, Islamophobic rhetoric. Whether in the US, the Netherlands, or Australia, Wilders uses populist discourse to further his Islamophobic, anti-Islamic agenda. 

By Mustafa Demir & Omer Shener 

Looking through the lens of global populism, the relationship between the Dutch right-wing populist politician Geert Wilders and like-minded political figures in the Western world is striking. Wilders’ efforts to reach out to like-minded groups and leaders go beyond courtesy visits. Through such efforts, Wilders attempts to construct an international front built on the common ground of anti-Islamic ‘concerns’. These ‘concerns’ are overhyped, with the aim of constructing an international, if not a transnational, front to challenge the Western world’s long-standing liberal norms of:

“Wake up, Christians of Tennessee! Islam is at your gate! Do not make the mistake which Europe made. Do not allow Islam to gain a foothold here… My friends, fortunately, not all politicians are irresponsible. Here, in Tennessee, brave politicians want to pass legislation which gives the state the power to declare organizations as terrorist groups and allowing material supporters of terrorism to be prosecuted. I applaud them for that. They are true heroes.”

This is how the Netherlands’ right-wing populist Geert Wilders addressed a crowd gathered in Cornerstone Church in Tennessee in May 2011. If, as Arditi (2007) suggests, populism is ‘the awkward dinner guest’ who, after drinking far too much, asks ‘inappropriate questions’, then Wilders’ populist dinner table discourse has been all about hype, defamation, and demonization.

Five years later, in July 2016, Wilders was in the US again, this time having been invited to Cleveland by US Senator Bill Ketron to attend the Republican National Convention. Wilders was in a state about Donald Trump’s nomination as the Republican candidate for president, expressing his excitement with the following words“I wish we had political leaders like this in the Netherlands who defend their own country… and forget the rest.”

In another gathering, Wilders addressed the crowd as followsIn America you see the same happening as in the Netherlands. The hard-working people, what they call the blue-collar workers here, no longer feel represented by the political elite. That people no longer want the policy of open borders, immigration and Islamization.”

On the other hand, his host, Senator Ketron, responded to Wilders’ critics and ‘justified’ extending an invitation to Wilders by saying: “He just wants to take his country back like Mr. Trump and supporters want to take our country back. If you wanna come here and assimilate and live by our laws is his position as well as mine.” 

Wilders’ populist outreach is not limited to the US. In 2013, the Q Society of Australia, a far-right anti-Islamic organization, organized a speaking tour with Wilders. In Melbourne, amid protests, Wilders spoke to the rally, warning Australians about Islam as follows: “I am here to warn Australia about the true nature of Islam. It is not just a religion as many people mistakenly think; it is primarily a dangerous totalitarian ideology… If we do not oppose Islam, we will lose everything: our freedom, our identity, our democracy, our rule of law, and all our liberties… Yes, my friends, there is hope. But only if we outgrow our fears and dare speak the truth… The future freedom of Australia, the liberties of your children – they depend on you. The ANZAC spirit helped keep Europe free in the past; the ANZAC spirit will keep you free in the future. Be as brave as your fathers, and you will survive.

This very same society organized a conference titled “Islam and Liberty” in Melbourne in 2014. The purpose of the conference, according to the Q Society’s spokesperson, was to bring “together many people who are concerned about the march of Islam into many western democracies, and how it changes the laws and values of western democracies… You get segregation when you get Muslims coming in, because their core belief is that Muslims are better people than non-Muslims… We’re keen to have integrated societies, but we think it’s important to have integration, not segregation.”

On the first day of the conference, Wilders was welcomed in a pre-recorded message in which he cheered a new anti-Islam party, the Australian Liberty Alliance. He spoke as follows: “Like you, good people in Europe, America and Canada have had enough of politicians who don’t share our values and foolishly declare that all cultures are equal and who lack courage to speak the truth and say that Islam is the biggest threat to freedom today. You too will soon have the opportunity to turn the tide in Australia.”

In 2015, Wilders visited Australia again to launch the Australian Liberty Alliance (ALA), a new anti-Islamic right-wing populist party led by Debbie Robinson, former president of the Q Society in Australia. Speaking to the media in Perth, he urged Australians to be vigilant about migration from Muslim countries with the following words: “You will have millions of people coming to Australia, like we do in Europe, and you will not be able to handle it…You should be a sovereign country that closes your borders to those kinds of immigrants.”

Praising the ALA and the potential ‘protector role’ it will play for Australia, Wilders told the media: “If you read their manifesto it is clear that they are the freedom fighters of Australia… They have none of the political correctness that so many of the leaders in the world have today… and [they want] Australia to stand firm and stay Australian without the appeasement and giving in to multiculturalism, I think it will have a lot of support.”

Deciphering Wilders’ points made during the press conference, Calla Wahlquist of The Guardian newspaper explains that: “‘Those kinds of immigrants’ are Muslims. Opposing Islam is the central tenet of Wilders’ Party for Freedom, which has been leading the polls in the Netherlands since August. It is also the key policy of the Australian Liberty Alliance (ALA), the new party that Wilders flew to Australia to launch.”

Wilders’ populist appeal is, of course, not limited to Australia. He is actively engaged in the politics of European countries and has been forging closer ties with like-minded populists across the globe. He does not shy away from showing up at right-wing populist rallies all over the Western world. In March 2015, Wilders was invited to a gathering of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) organized by FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache and addressed the rally with similar anti-Islamic rhetoric. 

To recap, Wilders’ populism is based on an Islamophobic worldview. His appeal is directly linked to the strong demand by Islamophobic groups for high-profile individuals who utilize populist, Islamophobic rhetoric. Whether in the US, the Netherlands, or Australia, Wilders uses populist discourse to further his Islamophobic, anti-Islamic agenda. Returning to our earlier discussion of populism as ‘the awkward dinner guest’, despite the discomfort, this gauche visitor can, in fact, help uncover underlying problems in society (Moffitt, 2010).

Populism can be a positive force, one that demonstrates the shortcomings of the system and challenges the status quo. However, it can also hinder the proper functioning of the democratic system if it violates the principles of democracy and human rights. In the same way, populism can also be a force for good if it can ‘identify otherwise overlooked political problems’ and become the voice of minorities and ‘marginalized groups’ (Gidron & Bonikowski, 2013). However, as discussed above, Wilders’ rhetoric does the opposite: it turns minorities and marginalized groups into scapegoats.

References

Arditi, Benjamin. (2007). Politics on the Edge of Liberalism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Gidron, Noam & Bonikowski, Bart. (2013). Varieties of Populism: Literature Review and Research Agenda. Working Paper Series, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Moffitt, Benjamin. (2010). “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Populism as the Awkward Dinner Guest of Democracy.” Connected Globe, Conflicting Worlds: Australian Political Studies Association Conference, University of Melbourne.

Frederique Vidal, French Minister of Higher Education and Research. Photo: Gerard Bottino

France’s attack on academics is an attempt to silence debate on race

By launching an investigation into academic studies of race, gender, and postcolonial studies that supposedly corrupt society and universities, the French government aims to diminish the legitimacy and importance of these fields of research and validate the scrutinization of academics.

By F. Zehra Colak & Erkan Toguslu

The French minister of higher education, Frédérique Vidal, has recently announced an investigation into so-called “Islamo-leftism” in the country’s academic institutions. She has accused scholars of colonialism and race of “looking at everything through the prism of wanting to fracture and divide.” This attempt to discredit scholars working with critical and postcolonial perspectives by targeting them with an ambiguous pseudo-concept —“Islamo-leftism” — underlies a strategy of silencing conversations about racism, white supremacy, and the impact of the colonial past to maintain an unrealistic image of France as a post-racial and egalitarian society. 

The use of the term “Islamo-leftism”—islamo-gauchisme in French— has gained traction in France among some academics and right-wing politicians. It refers to an unlikely political convergence between the far-left and radical Muslim movements standing against imperialism and neoliberal globalization. Today, it is used pejoratively by the current government, the far-right, and conservative media and academics in France to accuse left-wing anti-racist intellectuals of being overtly occupied with racism and Islamophobia and of justifying Islamism and terrorism. The widespread use of this tag by government figures risks stigmatizing all Muslims and left-leaning academics by lumping them into a crude category that carries extremist undertones. 

Even the National Center for Scientific Research, which Vidal assigned the task of investigating the fields of study concerned, has described “Islamo-leftism” as a poorly defined term with no relation to scientific reality. The center has also warned against “the instrumentalization of science” and infringing academic freedom in France. While the fuss over the term “Islamo-leftism” appears to be restricted to France, similar political trends are visible across Europe, where ministers often attack critical social theories depicting them as being against the “people.” Extremism experts have also attempted to link postcolonial theory with certain Muslim communities. 

The long-standing and dominant conviction about continental Europe having achieved a post-racial and egalitarian status still serves as a substantial barrier to recognizing systemic racism and the ongoing impact of colonial legacy on Black and racialized minorities. While the removal of “race” from public and academic discussions in the aftermath of the Holocaust has by no means diminished systemic racism, it has made it difficult to name or redress the profound consequences of racial inequity. France is no exception as it refuses to face up to its colonial past and denies racism by reproducing the rhetoric of a universalist and color-blind Republican ideal, which prioritizes national identification over racial or religious identity. 

In other words, Frenchness is seen as essential to achieving integration, whereas references to racial inequities are interpreted as identity politics endangering societal cohesion and leading to segregation. The establishment refutes references to institutional or structural bias as racism is seen as an individual moral flaw rather than being systemic. There are no race- or ethnicity-based statistics, and the term “race” was removed from the constitution in 2018. Such a race-blind ideal based on the myth of shared universal rights disguises the harmful consequences of racism by serving to sustain structures of racial inequity rather than dismantling them. This, despite the persistence of widespread discrimination targeting racialized minorities across societal institutions. 

Recent global and national incidents, such as the brutal killing of George Floyd in the US and the death of a Malian French man, Adama Traoré, in 2016 while in custody in France, triggered riots and protests against police violence and brutality in France. They have fuelled heated debates about race, discrimination, and the widespread concern about the racialization of security targeting young men living in French banlieues. People are demanding justice for those exposed to racial profiling, police brutality, and the systematic discrimination entailed in targeting racialized populations.

In France, young activists particularly have been vocal in defying the national narrative of color-blindness. The protests have galvanized long-brewing grievances leading to intense discussions about white supremacy, deeply ingrained systemic racism, and demands for decolonization. While fostering broader awareness and encouraging activism among a younger generation, such nation- and European-wide debates and protests have also increased fears that racial identity politics—ridiculed as woke culture—is being imported from the US. 

President Macron, who is tilting further to the right, made derogatory comments accusing academics of racializing socio-economic issues in the aftermath of anti-racist protests in France. By defying calls for racial justice as the influence of American multiculturalism and constructing demands for racial equity as a divisive threat, Macron’s government is attempting to gloss over the impact of racism on the everyday realities and experiences of France’s racialized minorities. In fact, Dan Hicks, a professor from Oxford University working on colonial violence, interprets the French government’s pushback against the progress made by anti-racist movements as the “invention of a culture war.”

Macron’s hardening rhetoric and attacks on academics and his recent campaign against the so-called “Islamist separatism” following the murder of Samuel Paty, a middle-school teacher, need to be understood within the context of wider socio-political circumstances in France. Macron portrayed himself as a defender of free expression after the beheading of Paty, who had shown his students caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a lesson on free expression and censorship. The recent attacks by Macron’s government on certain fields of academic inquiry, however, suggest otherwise. Some see Macron’s pandering to the French far-right on immigration issues, Islam, and labeling academics with defamatory terms as a strategy to capture support from conservative voters against the far-right leader Marine Le Pen in next year’s presidential election. Such divisive and stigmatizing government narratives targeting selected groups carry the perilous risk of aggravating existing social and systemic problems and further harming the very social cohesion it purportedly seeks to protect. 

Indeed, by launching an investigation into academic studies of race, gender, and postcolonial studies that supposedly corrupt society and universities, the government aims to diminish the legitimacy and importance of these fields of research and validate the scrutinization of academics. The concern over being targeted by the French government has been expressed by some academics on social media, including Michael Stambolis, an American sociologist teaching race in France, who wrote on Twitter: “When you’re literally an American sociologist in France who studies sexuality, runs a gender studies program, and teaches race, intersectionality, etc., it’s impossible not to feel targeted. I’m most concerned for my students and colleagues of color.

Despite the French government’s unprecedented attacks targeting academics working in postcolonial, race, and intersectionality studies, only 2 percent of publications in French academic journals since the 1960s have been dedicated to these studies, according to Philippe Marlière, a professor of French and European politics. So, if these studies are incredibly marginal in French academia, why is there so much concern about them? This is because their findings strongly challenge the national myth of a race-blind and egalitarian French society with no issues of systemic racism or colonial abuses. 

According to Macron, however, the (grand)children of African and Arab immigrants “revisiting their identity through a postcolonial or anticolonial” discourse poses the risk of nurturing “self-hatred” against France. Against Macron’s claims, these fields of academic inquiry mainly offer a way of critically engaging with the colonial legacy and a racialized system drawing inspiration from minority epistemological perspectives that have long been ignored. If anything, what they offer the (grand)children of African and Arab immigrants who study them is a deeper sense of knowledge, understanding, and a critical awareness about their position in a societal structure that fails to acknowledge and value their realities and experiences. 

Studying these critical perspectives is particularly important for racialized students who are trying to make sense of their place and negotiate their multiple identities in higher education settings, which often function as spaces of exclusion and marginalization. Suppose Macron wants the (grand)children of immigrants to forge positive identities as multicultural French citizens. In that case, he should better encourage universities to decolonize their curriculum and more actively participate in structurally engaging with the (post) colonial past and the experiences of racialized minorities in contemporary France. Because persisting racial inequities in a society cannot be solved by pretending that race does not exist and smearing academics who are researching it. 

Iconic Fallen Roof Ruin in Road Canyon on Cedar Mesa in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah. Photo: Colin D. Young

Access or Protection? Contested Lands in the American West

“Work and wilderness: surely, these two glare at each other across an intellectual clear-cut.”

Daegan Miller, This Radical Land

By Heidi Hart & Mehmet Soyer

Open lands foster a sense of community. You gather memories as you hike, hunt, climb, picnic, or drive a truck to work each day, but what happens if, all of a sudden, the federal government decides to expand or restrict the public lands where you live without asking your opinion? 

For rural workers in the American West, the phrase “wilderness protection” usually means less “access” – their own key word – to trails for off-road vehicles, less freedom to graze cattle and hunt wild game, and fewer jobs in the energy industry. On the other side of the divide, environmental activists call for government protections of non-motorized trails, water and air quality, and wildlife habitats. Though people in both groups resent development in open spaces, especially as wealthy second-home owners move in (Bowlin, 2021), the fight over how public lands can be enjoyed is often bitter. As Indigenous tribes push back against oil and gas leases and over-tourism, after several centuries of profound loss, the picture becomes even more complex.

One of most pressing Western land controversies is over the Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah. The region contains “breathtaking geological spectacle(s), knife-edged ridges, sleek white domes, lush valleys and cloud shaped rock formations” (Nordhaus, 2018). This dramatic geography is familiar to many Europeans, especially in Germany, where visits to Utah’s redrock country have been a part of popular fascination with the American West since Karl May’s adventure novels, however “unrealistic,” were “the German counterpart to ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Lord of the Rings’” in the first half of the twentieth century (Spröer, 2016)

But Escalante is more than a rich space for speculation, whether in books or in mineral leases. The region contains many areas that are sacred to Native tribes, in southern Utah and beyond, with Bears Ears an important place in migration narratives of Zuni pueblo in New Mexico as well (McLeod, 2019). The area also includes many archeological sites that contain important cultural resources (Eaton, 2001) “from small lithic scatters to large highly complex village sites” (Enote, 2021). Though exploring the area’s deep sandstone canyons is popular with tourists, “the mesa tops are covered with great houses, ancient roads, underground pit houses, villages, and shrines” that may not be obvious to untrained eyes (Enote, 2021).

Indian ruins in the Bears Ears National Monument, Utah, USA. Photo: Krista Hardin

Bears Ears National Monument was created under the Obama administration in 2016, giving the region’s famous twin buttes (the “ears”) and surrounding Native heritage areas a new level of protection. This was the first time a coalition of tribes had been able to request and give input into a national monument. These groups have traditionally been underrepresented in decisions about the lands they have occupied for thousands of years. A Ute tribal chairman, Shaun Chapoose, told reporters at the Washington Post, “We knew exactly what was within that geographical boundary. We knew the gravesites, we knew where the artifacts were, we knew where certain plants and herbs grew” (Fox et al., 2019).

Less than a year later, Donald Trump moved to reduce the monument by 85 percent, raising the fury of wilderness advocates and Native tribes, while winning approval from local residents whose populist bent favors limited government if it interferes with hunting, grazing, and mining rights (Ban, 2017). Driving through San Juan County where Bears Ears National Monument is located, you can still see “NO MONUMENT” bumper stickers and yard signs. Although different leadership groups had been included in Obama’s decision-making process, many local residents felt that their way of life and livelihood had been ignored. Some tribal leaders opposed the monument as well, feeling that it would invite too much outdoor recreation in sacred sites (Buhay, 2017).

With Trump’s extreme reduction of Bears Ears, opening it to oil and gas leases, wilderness advocates felt that their own concerns had been completely disregarded. In December 2017, 5,000 people gathered at the Utah State Capitol to protest the Trump administration’s move (Wood, 2017). This protest included scientists, activists, families, students, community leaders, and representatives from a rare coalition of tribes, some with their own history of land disputes: the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and Zuni Pueblo (McLeod, 2019). The crowd fell silent as Carl Moore, chairman of Peaceful Advocates for Native American Dialogue and Organizing Support, danced in a traditional feathered headdress and a gas mask (Leonard and Cortez, 2017).

Valley of the Gods, Utah, Bears Ears National Monument. Photo: Krista Hardin

Though the Bears Ears controversy has been particularly fraught, Utah has been the focus of “divisive unilateral national monument decisions” for the past quarter century (Nordhaus, 2021). In the US, “business and development interests are often privileged” due to a long history of “maximizing production of resources from ecosystems” (Grumbine, 1994: 11). But a new era of public lands protection, with Native voices included in policy making, is taking shape today. The Biden administration is expected to reverse the shrinking of Bear Ears and Grand Escalante national monuments. Supporters of wilderness and Indigenous land protections take particular comfort in Biden’s nomination of the first Native secretary of the Interior, Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico. 

Back in San Juan County, local leaders have expressed new willingness to work with the tribal coalition but are still wary of governmental “overreach” (Douglas and Brewer, 2021). As has long been the case in the American West, every community has a strong sense of belonging in the land. Descendants of the white Latter-day Saint settlers in the Utah desert, with their own migration story of fleeing persecution, often resent the “VanLife” nomads and second-home newcomers who do not understand what it cost their ancestors to survive here, or what it meant to them symbolically. “Mormons didn’t mind the desert,” Rebecca Solnit writes. “It reminded them of the Old Testament” (Solnit, 1994: 52)with its story of exodus from Egypt. 

At the same time, many desert recreation enthusiasts resent those they perceive as being less respectful than they are. The Bears Ears area’s most recent claim to fame is not actually its “monumental” controversy but the strange appearance of a monolith resembling the one in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: Space Odyssey. As images of the monolith went viral in December 2020, so did COVID-frustrated tourists’ efforts to find its remote location. Within days, the Martian-looking landscape had been trashed by Instagrammers rushing to document themselves as much as the shiny object that, it turns out, had been there since 2016. Suddenly one night, the monolith disappeared. This was the act of a wilderness enthusiast who could not bear the crowds and left the words “leave no trace” – as, ironically, his own trace in the desert (Wells, 2020)

Perhaps the pain that locals or wilderness advocates feel when the federal government changes public lands policy, or when “outsiders” want to use the land, can serve as a reminder of what Native tribes have experienced for centuries. When white settlers arrived and displaced Indigenous communities, they saw the land as a thing to be owned. They did not appreciate how deeply they violated relationships with a life-giving landscape meant to be known, where, as the Zuni say, “as we live in the present ways of our people, we live also within the realm of our ancestors” (The Zuni People, 1972: 180). As one wave of newcomers disgruntles the next, perhaps some can step back and imagine what has come before and what will remain, or not, for future generations.

References

Grumbine, R. Edward. (1994). Editor. Environmental Policy and Biodiversity. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Miller, Daegan. (2018). This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Solnit, Rebecca. (1994). Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape of the American West. Berkeley: University of California Press.

The Zuni People. (1972). The Zunis: Self-Portrayals. Translated by Alvina Quam. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

Thousands of people turn out for the anti racism - anti-Donald Trump and Nigel Farage rally through central London on March 18, 2017. Photo: John Gomez

Populists International (I) — Populists Hand in Hand: Farage and Trump

How Does International Cooperation Work Between Populists? 

The last decade has seen a rise in cooperation between xenophobic right-wing populists, both in Europe and internationally. Elsewhere, we’ve seen the rise of anti-Western populists from majority Muslim countries and left-wing Latin American populist leaders. My hope with this commentary series is to begin a fruitful discussion about this cooperation. I will start by examining the stunning cooperation between British right-wing populist Nigel Farage and former US President Donald Trump, the populist held power in a country long viewed as the beacon of democracy.  

By Mustafa Demir

The relationship between former US President Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and hard Eurosceptic, went beyond the limits of a mere friendship to become an international cooperation, if not a coalition. As such, it is relevant to international populism studies. The two supported the other’s political campaigns and gave statements and interviews promoting one another’s political agendas. They even physically appeared at each other’s election rallies as “guests of honour.” They readily endorsed the other as a fellow “man of the people.” 

Farage routinely commented or posted on social media in support of Trump. Shortly after Britain voted to leave the European Union (EU), Farage appeared at a Trump campaign rally in Jackson, Mississippi in August 2016. He was introduced to the crowd – by Trump – as “the man behind Brexit.” Addressing the pro-Trump crow, Farage stated that, “I wouldn’t vote for Hilary Clinton if you paid me.”

He continued as follows: “[UKIP] made 23 June our Independence Day when we smashed the Establishment… If the little people, if the real people, if the ordinary decent people are prepared to stand up and fight for what they believe in, we can overcome the big banks, we can overcome the multinationals.”

Farage also used this opportunity to lambast Prime Minister David Cameron and former US President Barack Obama for backing the “Remain” campaign. He drew parallels between the US elections and the Brexit referendum, and he urged “the ordinary people” of the US to “stand up to the establishment and take back control with a ‘people’s army.’” 

He successfully appealed to the emotions of the crowd, saying: “I come to you from the United Kingdom with a message of hope and a message of optimism. If the little people, if the real people, if the ordinary decent people are prepared to stand up and fight for what they believe in, we can overcome the big banks, we can overcome the multinationals – and we did it…[You, the Americans, have a] fantastic opportunity with November’s election. And you’ll do it by doing what we did for Brexit in Britain. We had our own people’s army or ordinary citizens… If you want change, you better get your walking boots on, you better get out there campaigning; and, remember, anything is possible if enough decent people are prepared to stand up against the establishment.”

Daniel Bates of the Evening Standard noted that Farage’s appearance was an historical moment, in the sense that it was the “first time a British politician has ever addressed a Republican Presidential rally.” 

Farage also appeared in the most recent election campaign. He appeared in Arizona in November 2020. Marina Hyde, of the Guardian, broke the news with the title “Behold Trump’s pre-election secret weapon: Nigel Farage, ‘king of Europe.’” She was quoting Trump, who welcomed Farage to the state with the moniker, “the king of Europe.” Farage responded by calling Trump, “the single most resilient and bravest person I have ever met in my life.” 

Of course, this “favour” was not one sided. Trump came Farage’s aid during the Brexit campaign. When former President Obama visited London in April 2016, his comment on the upcoming Brexit referendum – and its possible negative consequences for Britain – upset Farage, who called it a “monstrous interference” in British politics. It was: “…A monstrous interference, I’d rather he stayed in Washington, frankly, if that’s what he’s going to do. You wouldn’t expect the British Prime Minister to intervene in your presidential election, you wouldn’t expect the Prime Minister to endorse one candidate or another. Perhaps he’s another one of those people who doesn’t understand what [the EU] is.

Despite this, Farage always welcomed Trump’s support for the campaign. And despite his supposed reservations about foreign interference in elections, he did not hesitate to take the stage in Jackson, where he urged the American people not to vote for Hilary Clinton. Farage reacted to the possibility of Obama’s sharing his opinion supporting the “remain” campaign and said,

After assuming power in January 2017, less than seven months after the Brexit referendum, Trump repeatedly commented on British politics. For example, he did not hesitate to criticize former PM Theresa May’s Brexit plan. In July 2018, speaking to the Sun, Trump said, “I would have done it much differently… I actually told Theresa May how to do it, but she didn’t listen to me.”

During May’s visit to the White House in January 2017, Trump claimed Brexit was a “blessing for the world” and a “beautiful, beautiful thing.”

Trump was ecstatic about Brexit. The “Leave” campaign echoed his own populist themes and showed the sea-change that was happening in Western politics and the increasing popularity of anti-establishment candidates. Brexit was undeniably a warning sign that populism and nationalism were gaining momentum. It was not an isolated accident, but a groundswell that would redefine political paradigms.

Despite his support for Brexit, Trump has always been a highly unpopular figure in the UK. In contrast, Farage seems highly popular with Trump’s far right supporters. The US media saw Farage’s 2020 appearance in Arizona as “yesterday’s man” who was “forced to travel abroad to seek a spotlight.” Farage’s influence in the UK has waned since Brexit. 

Farage has also not hesitated to join far-right, pro-Trump, conspiracy-spreading radio programmes and gave interviews supporting Trump’s narratives and policies. Among many others, some of the conspiracies he spread included the lie that Obama is a Muslim plotting against the US and that Trump’s impeachment was a “Jewish coup.” In some of these interviews, Farage repeatedly discussed a supposed plot by bankers and “globalists” to impose a world government, a conspiracy theory strongly linked to antisemitism.

Similarly, during and after the Brexit campaign, he hosted Trump on his radio show on LBC radio. LBC is a respected radio station providing platforms to different segments of society. In October 2019, Trump joined Farage’s programme and commented positively on the performance of the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the process of Brexit while criticising Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, and then opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. Although Trump has never been popular in the UK, the fact that he joined the conversation in support of his good friend Farage is worth highlighting. It should also be noted that the LBC has announced Farage stepping down “with immediate effect” in June 2020, following a radio show in which he compared Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests to the Taliban. 

When it comes to cooperation between these two populists, Gideon Rachman underlines the link between the Brexit referendum and the election of Trump. Rachman marks with bold letters that both these incidents “will forever be linked in history. The two events took place within a few months of each other. Both were populist revolts that appealed to similar constituencies.” 

Supporting Rachman’s view, Laetitia Langlois (2018: 16) rightly argues that: “The pro-Brexit and the pro-Trump votes rest on the same dynamics: they are both angry votes against the elite, against immigration, against globalisation. It is no surprise then that Nigel Farage and Donald Trump are so close: as the embodiments of the rage against the system and the two populist voices in the anglosphere, they had common ideas, common targets and common objectives.”

Trump and Farage view the concerns of their constituents as basically the same. Speaking at the Jackson rally, with Farage at his side, Trump said: “They voted to break away from rule by large corporations and media executives who believe in a world without borders…They voted to reclaim control over immigration, over their economy, over their government…. Working people and the great people of the UK took control of their destiny.”

As a final note, Trump spoke to his supporters while seeing himself out of the White House and off Florida. He said, “we will be back in some form.” After his acquittal in his  2nd impeachment trial, on 13th of February, 2021, Trump released a press statement, celebrating his acquittal. He said: “Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun. In the months ahead I have much to share with you, and I look forward to continuing our incredible journey together to achieve American greatness for all of our people.”

If he manages to make a come-back, there is no doubt that he would not leave his good friend Nigel jobless. Thus, it is not surprising to see Farage celebrating Trump’s acquittal, as evidenced by the following Tweet:

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Greta Thunberg, climate activist, has been demonstrating on Fridays outside the Swedish Parliament. Photo: Liv Oeian

Greta Thunberg: Climate Populism As Productive Double?

This commentary considers aspects of populism that Greta Thunberg’s climate movement exposes and transforms. Dr. Hart also considers Thunberg’s “spectrum superpower” and the force of activist community-building in a climate crisis that is already here.  

By Heidi Hart

In today’s polarizing politics, xenophobic populism is usually seen as a distant opposite of grassroots progressive movements. The reductive binary of evil twin/good twin is tempting, too, but what happens if we look at ways in which a youthful climate movement mirrors and transforms populist action? The double or Doppelgänger, when it appears in literature and film, is both familiar and other, in Freud’s sense of the uncanny (Glynn, 2016). If viewed through the mirror-lens, Thunberg’s role as an unexpectedly charismatic leader of a viral movement can seem as populist as that of autocrats who whip up nationalist feeling in their followers. What her work does, though, is to reveal the power of soulful activism to transform group dynamics for an outward cause rather than toward self-preservation. Though her position as a white female from a wealthy Nordic country has overshadowed less privileged young activists (Mernit, 2019), Thunberg’s movement is a useful case study in how populist impulses can speak truth to power, to use the old Quaker phrase, rather than sow fear and hate. 

Climate populism, which “tends to take ‘the people’ to be a global subject rather than a national project” and has led to the “quick uptake” of projects like the Green New Deal, can certainly risk dilution (Bosworth, 2020) and denial of Black and Brown community concerns (Coleman, 2021). At the same time, it holds potential for what Geoff Mann and Joel Wainright have called “Climate X,” a future vision that does not compromise endlessly for the sake of neoliberal planetary “management” on the one hand or surrender to autocratic oppressions on the other. This vision calls for “a rapid reduction of carbon emissions by collective boycott and strike,”[i] very much in line with Thunberg’s project. Though the authors recognize the “impractical” idealism of transnational, anti-capitalist revolution, from the neoliberal perspective, they hope for class struggles and local, Indigenous-informed efforts to “subtract” communities from damaging power systems,[ii] taking inspiration from the “palpable urgency”[iii] in mass movements like Fridays for Future.

Thunberg’s unexpected “superpower” (Rourke, 2019) in her Asperger’s has been remarkably effective in focusing the Fridays movement on specific, concrete goals rather than on feel-good platitudes. In its “ghost” role as a suppressed aspect of normative European culture,[iv] the autism spectrum exposes gifts buried under assumptions that “human” means “neurotypical” (Morris, 2004). In a recent essay by Thunberg’s mother, related to the family’s new book,[v]Malena Ernman recounts Greta’s years of facing bullying at school while refusing to eat at home. After being diagnosed with “high-functioning Asperger’s” and beginning to talk about her humiliations at school, Greta found her vocation in the very dissonance she experienced, painfully, between modern comforts and planetary disease. “She saw what the rest of us did not want to see. It was as if she could see our CO2 emissions with her naked eye” (Ernman, 2020).

Having been raised in a well-educated family, with an opera singer mother with the luxury of posting “sun-drenched selfies from Japan” – and later regretting this (Ernman, 2020) – Thunberg continues to call attention to the blind privilege of travel as consumption and to corporate powers whose carbon footprints dwarf those of even the most profligate tourists. 

Thunberg’s insistence on uncompromising truth about global warming, her sailing to the US for the UN Climate Action Summit in 2019 (Brady, 2019) despite criticism for white yachting privilege (Parker, 2019), and her ability to stare down Donald Trump (Rosen, 2019) have led not only to internet fame but to an equally viral youth movement as well. Online spread via YouTube videos, memes, and tweets is common to both far-right and climate populism, but younger activists disrupting autocratic power structures bring an open, 1960s-like energy to their efforts (Ellis, 2019)

Thunberg has certainly inspired Gen-Z activists to TikTok their way to organizing Black Lives Matter events and embarrassing Donald Trump at a largely empty rally (Herrman, 2020). At the same time, she does not take credit as a sole actor, citing her own inspiration from the Parkland shooting survivors in the US and from earlier activists, many unrecognized because they did not come from the global North and “many of whom had been raising the climate alarm for years.”[vi] Thunberg also recognizes that although the Fridays movement may have started with her lonely, quiet presence outside Parliament with a sign, it has grown through “the work of thousands of diverse student leaders, their teachers, and supporting organizations.”[vii] The recent documentary on Thunberg has received some negative reviews, not because it adds to scoffing from the right or left, but because it valorizes her as one savior figure in a movement that needs multitudes, a critique with which she would agree (Bradshaw, 2020).

The power of the pause – refusing to attend school once a week, holding one’s ground despite the bullying Thunberg now faces on a global scale – has proven inspiring to many in its own right. In a world that runs on an assumption of “endless growth” fueled by extractivism,[viii] simply stopping normal routines can open up a space for questioning what “normal” even is. The COVID year has brought to light what privileged humans deeply fear: failure of the drive for more stuff, more speed, more work, more travel, more development, more corporate comforts. In this very stoppage, though, is hope for a planet already in crisis. In her recent video, released close to the Paris Agreement’s five-year anniversary, Thunberg reflects on how little “big speeches” have done to halt carbon emissions and enact the “system change” the planet needs (Common Dreams, 2020). Her own speeches may be small in comparison, but they serve a crucial role in calling for a halt to the mythology of endless growth. 

So, what comes next? A 2020 document published anonymously in France, more radically subverting individualist privilege than Thunberg’s movement does, holds that neither calling out governments on the one hand nor altering consumer habits on the other is enough to address climate crisis at its depth. This text, titled “Re-attachments” (Anonymous, 2020/2021) does call for strikes and direct action (along the lines of Mann and Wainwright’s “Climate X” and Thunberg’s stoppages) but adds another antidote: an ecology of “presence” rather than “absence.” 

This means that instead of feeling helpless in the face of mass extinctions and lost habitats, we can mourn these while fostering commitment to new forms of community in an already compromised world. “In order to develop constituent forms of material and political autonomy, we need to communize spaces, land, wastelands, buildings, churches, houses, and parks” (Anonymous, 2020/2021). Learning from Indigenous practices of ecological co-regulation (in a respectful way, without cultural extractivism or appropriation) can aid in developing stronger bonds between humans and other species, too. Greta Thunberg’s model of quiet, searing clarity has been a giant step toward mobilizing climate action; the communities her work continues to form, in contrast to the chat rooms of fear-based populism, may be its greatest gift.   


References

[i] Mann, Geoff & Wainright, Joel. (2018). Climate Leviathan. Verso Books. p. 160. 

[ii] Ibid. 175.

[iii] Ibid. 173.

[iv] Mindell, Arnold. (1995). Sitting in the Fire: Large group transformation using conflict and diversity. Lao Tse Press. 69-70.

[v] Thunberg, Greta and Malena Ernman, Svante Thunberg, Beate Ernman. (2020). Our House Is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis. Penguin.

[vi] Klein, Naomi. (2020). “On Fire.” All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis. Penguin Random House. p. 42.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Higgs, Kerryn. (2016). Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet. MIT Press.

A concert of Norwegian band Wardruna at Cathedral Cave, Kirkehelleren on Sanna Island during Traenafestival that is a music festival taking place on the small island of Traena in Norway on July 8, 2017. Photo: Melanie Lemahieu

Music and the Far-Right Trance

By Heidi Hart

On a cold-soaked January night in Berlin, less than a week after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, I stood with several thousand counter-protesters on the west side of the Brandenburg Gate. On the other side, a smaller group of PEGIDA demonstrators had gathered with German flags and nationalist signs. Armed police held a line under the iconic pillars. Anger at the rise of xenophobic populism, which in turn had been fueled by the Paris attack, was palpable in all the bodies around me. The crowd chanted, “Nationalismus ‘raus aus den Köpfen,” a plea to unplug internalized nationalism. Loudspeakers pounded Turkish rap from a nearby truck. As the chant grew more synchronized and the crowd pressed closer to the barricade, I understood in a kinetic way what I had been researching in my doctoral work, on the power of rhythm to entrain the body politic, synching heart and breath rate to a march beat. 

In a famous scene in Günter Grass’ novel The Tin Drum, the main character disrupts the rhythm of a Nazi march by beating a waltz on his drum, and then breaking into a syncopated foxtrot.[i] The spell of crowd manipulation breaks, if only for a short, chaotic time. Likewise, as the chanting fell off kilter in Berlin that January night, our voices syncopated by the nearby rap, I was relieved. Though my hopes for an inclusive Germany lined up with the beliefs of others around me, we could easily be swept into a pulsing trance state and lose our criticality. This embodied experience comes to mind as I track the ongoing use of music in far-right recruitment in Europe, where rapid-fire rhythms and pagan fascinations have proven dangerously effective in giving young people a sense of atavistic destiny and rhythmic accord with groups that operate as much on fear as they proclaim faux-tribal grit.

By summer 2016, nearly a hundred far-right musical events had taken place in Germany in that year alone (Staudenmaier, 2016), and have continued, most notably in the former East. Though some of these events take the form of festivals attracting large numbers of neo-Nazis, also from the U.S. (Engel & Denne, 2020) many do not come off as stadium-style rock concerts but appropriate the “high-culture” term Liederabend (Staudenmaier, 2016), traditionally a classical recital with voice and piano. Now in popular singer-songwriter format, these intimate settings allow young people who might not identify as hard-line racists to become convinced of the dangers of migration and “Islamification” in their local towns. Associating the tradition of Schubert songs with notions of nationalist superiority also echoes the Nazi co-opting of German classical music, which Thomas Mann diagnosed as collective sickness in his 1947 novel Doktor Faustus. This all-too-familiar melding of musical intimacy with far-right ideology sounds alarms for a generation raised after decades of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or reckoning with the past, in Germany. “Never forget” risks becoming, as some of my Trump-supporting students in the U.S. have glibly put it, “Hitler wasn’t so bad.”

The German Linke (Left) party has described fascist-flavored music as a “gateway drug,” (Staudenmaier, 2016) recalling the words of Hanns Eisler, one of Brecht’s musical collaborators during the Nazi era, who warned of music’s capacity to serve as a socio-political “narcotic” (Shams, 2019). As neo-Nazis jolt their bodies in time with hate-rock’s machine-gun beat, they are not operating in the rebel-against-everything world of punk’s rapid rhythms, but rather training their senses in rage against particular, marginalized groups. Heavy metal and its many subgenres have sometimes aligned with racist ideology over the past forty years, encouraging kinetic immersion in violent theatrics, though bands such as Rammstein have denied the white-supremacist leanings some of their fans espouse (Braun, 2019). As musicologist Lawrence Kramer has pointed out, ideology is “sticky” and can adhere to many kinds of music, because musical “meaning” is mainly associative and sound is experienced in a directly physical way[ii] (Reybrouck & Eerola, 2017).

Some bands do not attract right-wing fans just through guttural singing or harsh, precise rhythms that some might consider “Teutonic” (Herbst, 2019). Sturmwehr and Unbeliebte Jungs take pride in their overtly racist lyrics (Shams, 2019); the far-right AfD party in Germany has used such bands to recruit like-minded adherents (Corte & Edwards, 2008) and though the party has found such efforts more difficult in the past several years (Mischke, 2019) “community spread” continues to occur in gaming communities and on dark web platforms as well (Kamenetz, 2019). In 2019 police shut down several white-power concerts in Thuringia due to banned songs being performed (Shams, 2019), but “hatecore” continues to draw young people, some of whom do commit hate crimes as their commitment to white supremacy grows.  

More recently, neofolk and “Vikingarock” bands have gained large followings in Scandinavia and beyond, thanks in part to the Netflix series Vikings and The Last Kingdom. Because of the unavoidable history of Nazism’s Norse fascinations, these bands tend to disavow the fascist ideology their music tends to attract, but that disavowal can be fuzzy. Ultima Thule in Sweden, active since the 1980s, cannot avoid associations with the Nazi use of the same name for an imaginary Aryan homeland (Crane, 2019). They have brought their Viking-inflected mashup of folk, punk, and rock to numerous skinhead concerts, and, with a focus on national pride in their lyrics, are commonly known as a “white power” band.[iii]In a country where the now-defunct New Democracy party (like the AfD in Germany) included white power music in its youth recruitment (Corte & Edwards, 2008), and where the equally xenophobic Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Åkesson has been known to party with Ultima Thule (Radio Sweden, 2015), the band’s statements denying a racist agenda while valorizing national “roots” (Ultima Thule, 2007) remain problematic.

On the other hand, the Norwegian neofolk band Wardruna has set out to take back Viking-era instruments and imagery from the far right. Known in the blogosphere as “antifascist neofolk,” (ANZUS, 2018) Wardruna’s music (part of the soundtrack for Vikings) includes not only hard-driving hits like “Helvegen,” about the journey to the Norse land of the dead, but also unplugged “skald” or bard songs with simple string instruments, and songs using Celtic musical modes. Still, the lines can blur when calling up pagan mysteries once celebrated in Nazi torch parades and propaganda films. One of Wardruna’s members, who has since left the group, did have far-right leanings in his former black-metal days (ANZUS, 2018), and like the current Netflix nature-cult trend (the Danish series Equinox as an example of mood-TV that makes pagan rites seem equally dangerous and attractive), Viking-associated music can still draw fans who want to picture themselves like the costumed “shaman” who joined the U.S. Capitol insurrection.

Some antidotes to far-right “stickiness” include satire, however brutal, as in the Swedish film Midsommar (as critical of American tourism as it is of neo-pagan pretensions), and even farcical humor, as in the Monty Python-style series Norsemen. In Germany, music counters music, often in the form of rap, as in songs by Japanese-German Blumio (Kuniyoshi Fumio), whose “Hey Mr. Nazi” is too catchy to sound pedantic about racist stereotyping. The pop group Misuk takes up antifascist texts by Bertolt Brecht and reimagines them for the 21st century, giving them a playful ease that appeals to younger listeners. The German Netflix series Dark draws on pagan tropes, but with a philosophical grain and chilling soundtrack that show the danger of immersion in primordial caves. 

In the literary world, Sarah Moss’ 2019 novel Ghost Wall shows where uncritical neo-paganism can lead: an anthropologist involves his family in a Stone Age role-play fantasy that becomes all too real when his daughter discovers she is meant to be a human sacrifice. Though the book begins with what some reviewers have called an “incantatory” prologue (Hagy, 2019) the story itself works against this trance-inducing language, to show what can happen when human bodies get caught up in drumming, chanting, and torch-bearing. Luckily in this case, the spell breaks as the narrator refuses to join in the chant, “no longer afraid or ashamed.”[iv]

Note: This commentary draws on my previous research on antifascist music in Germany and the narcotic effects it works to interrupt, as well as on my recent work on music in dark- ecological art and film. 

 


References

[i] Grass, Günter. (1997). Die Blechtrommel (1959), Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag. 151-156

[ii] Kramer, Lawrence. (2018). The Hum of the World: A Philosophy of Listening. University of California Press. 115-116.

[iii] Pred, Allan. (2019). Even in Sweden: Racisms, Racialized Spaces, and the Popular Geographical Imagination. University of California Press. 219. See also Teitelbaum, Benjamin R. (2017). Lions of the North: Sounds of the New Nordic Radical Nationalism. Oxford University Press. 

[iv] Moss, Sarah. (2019). Ghost Wall. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 124.